Private cord blood banks – the ultimate insurance or the ultimate marketing ploy?

It’s highly unlikely that any pregnant woman today could get through her pregnancy without coming across the savvy marketing efforts of at least one private cord blood bank. I was recently at a major pregnancy and baby expo and saw no less than three different private cord blood companies represented. Utilising highly emotional language and imagery, these businesses rely on hooking parents-to-be at a very vulnerable point in their lives – the imminent birth of their baby.

As most of us are now aware, cord blood contains stem cells. The remarkable thing about these specific stem cells (also known as Haematopoietic stem cells) is that they have the potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In addition, in many tissues they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing essentially without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.

The central idea behind storing your baby’s blood in a private cord bank is that one day, your child may become ill and you may be able to use those stem cells for treatment. In a sense, it is the ultimate health insurance. Notice my intentional use of italics for the word “may”. Stem cell research is still very much in a nascent stage and what many parents are not being told is that in most cases, their baby’s own cord blood cannot be used for the treatment of a disease he or she may develop in later life (such as leukaemia) because it is highly likely that the disease is already present in the DNA of that blood and so giving it to the ill child will not cure them.

Flipping through a popular pregnancy magazine recently, I came across an ad for one particular private cord blood bank and was astounded at the inaccuracies in the copy. “You have only one chance to save your baby’s stem cells – at the time of their birth. The cord blood will otherwise be discarded.”

Similarly, the following information appears on the website of another prominent private Australian cord blood bank whose name I will not mention because I don’t want to promote their business.

“If you are an expectant parent in Australia, you have choices when deciding what to do with your baby’s cord blood and tissue. We encourage parents to understand the differences in order to make an informed decision. Your options are:

Private family cord banking
Store your baby’s cord blood and tissue for future individual or family use with a private family cord bank such as (name of cord blood bank)

Public banking
Donate your baby’s cord blood to a government-funded public cord blood bank for use by anyone needing a transplant

If you do not choose either of these options, your baby’s cord blood and tissue will be discarded at birth.

Umm…  Why discarded? What about the cord blood ending up where it is supposed to end up – in the baby?! Parents need to be informed that cord blood collection requires premature cord clamping, and that the blood being collected belongs to their baby.

Some parents are told that they can have it both ways – that they can both delay the cord clamping AND store it. This is simply not true and more to the point, not possible. After the placenta has finished transferring blood to the baby it is difficult to collect even the few mls needed for blood group testing (Rh neg). The minimum required for cord blood collection is 45mls. Anyone can do the maths on that one.

It is estimated that up to one third of the newborn’s blood volume remains in the placenta immediately following birth. By delaying cord clamping and cutting until the cord stops pulsating, you are truly giving your baby the best gift you could ever give them at birth – their own blood.

Can you imagine a single parent consenting to having someone come onto the postnatal ward and sticking a needle into their baby to collect around a third of their blood volume? It’s the same thing… only the needle is in the baby not the umbilical cord. Some experts are now suggesting that we refer to delayed cord clamping as optimal cord clamping.

This is the current recommendation of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) on cord blood banking:

“The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) supports the collection of altruistic and directed cord blood donations in at risk families. The routine collection of directed donations in low-risk families (private UCB banking) must consider both the cost and an uncertain probability of future benefit.”

According to an article by Samuel et al, which appeared in the Medical Journal of Australia, the authors concluded that “in contrast with public Umbilical Cord Blood banks (UCB), there is little social or  medical justification for private UCB banking, as it provides no benefit to the community and little benefit to parents (other than reassurance and amelioration of regret), due to the very low likelihood of requiring autologous UCB later in life.

You can also read an article from the Journal of Perinatal Education (Waller-Wise, 2011) discussing the use of stem cells which includes some information about the limitations the private cord blood banks don’t share with parents.

If you need further convincing, here are three excellent videos that I can highly recommend you watch;

Penny Simkin on Delayed Cord Clamping:

Busted: Cord Blood Banks

90 Seconds to Change the World – Dr Alan Greene at TEDx Brussels

Making good informed decisions, based on quality current evidence-based research is one of the most important things a woman can do during her pregnancy, labour and birth. When I teach my Lamaze classes and discuss the benefits of delayed cord clamping, I am continuously surprised at how many people have never even heard the term – but almost everyone has heard of cord blood banks. The imbalance must be addressed and parents need to know the facts. If you are a pregnant woman reading this article and you’ve been approached by a private cord blood bank, ask yourself this important question; who REALLY stands to benefit from storing your baby’s cord blood? Your baby or the cord blood bank?

Tanya Strusberg is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator (LCCE) and founder of birthwell birthright, an independent childbirth education practice based in Melbourne. In 2015, Tanya was inducted as an FACCE (Fellow of the Academy of Certified Childbirth Educators) in recognition of her significant contribution to childbirth education. Through her internationally-accredited Lamaze Educator Training program, she is very excited to be training a new generation of Australian Lamaze educators.

Last, but absolutely not least, she is also the mum of two beautiful children, her son Liev and daughter Amalia.